A young couple goes to the pastor’s office in a lovely church on the green to ask to have their wedding there. They aren’t members of the church, and they admit they’re not particularly religious. But they want “a church wedding.” The pastor is free to perform the wedding or not, based on his or her religious convictions.
Another couple, both of whom grew up in the church, stop by the next day and ask to be married in the church. They want their union blessed in the eyes of God, in a sacred setting deeply meaningful to them and their families. But in this case, the pastor is prevented by law from performing the wedding.
Why? Because the second couple is gay. And the church is in North Carolina.
In 2012, North Carolina voters approved Amendment One, which, along with related marriage laws, made it illegal for the state to perform or recognize same-sex marriages. The laws prohibit issuing marriage licenses to same-gender couples and make it a criminal offense for a minister to perform a religious marriage ceremony for any couple who does not have such a license.
So that gay couple for whom marriage in a church means everything? They would have to talk a minister into breaking the law to marry them.
On April 28, the United Church of Christ, a Protestant denomination with roots in the congregational and reformed traditions, filed a lawsuit to challenge Amendment One and related North Carolina marriage laws in U.S. District Court in Charlotte. For almost 40 years, the United Church of Christ has advocated the equal treatment of gays and lesbians and more recently equal marriage rights for all.
While not all of our ministers would choose to perform a same-sex marriage ceremony, many would be proud to do so. Today, there are 155 United Church of Christ congregations in North Carolina. The state’s marriage laws restrict our ministers’ choices and make it a crime for them to act in accordance with their consciences and their faith.
No minister should be forced to make a choice between performing the sacred duties of the church and violating a state law.
This lawsuit is about more than the restrictions imposed on ministers. It is about safeguarding Americans’ First Amendment rights to freedom of religion and freedom of expression from government interference. If North Carolina voters don’t like gay marriage, they must not be allowed to tamper with the Bill of Rights to express their disapproval.
The United Church of Christ’s history goes back to the Pilgrims, people who crossed an ocean seeking religious freedom. Today, we take that freedom for granted, perhaps not recognizing how precious, and relatively rare, it really is. The Pew Research Center reports that three-quarters of the world’s population – 5.3 billion people – live in countries with moderate to severe restrictions on religious liberty.
We in this country are not immune. In the North Carolina case, we are advocating the religious freedoms of all people, including those who disagree with us on the issue of same-sex marriage. We take this action not only on our own behalf, but on behalf of all Americans.
The Rev. Geoffrey A. Black is president of the United Church of Christ.